Whoever coined the phrase "It's not how you start, but how you finish" probably had Major League Soccer's regular season in mind -- because the slate of games from March to October is wonderfully forgiving. A woeful start need not condemn a side to spectator status when playoff time rolls around. And there have been plenty of examples of teams who won the Supporters' Shield but whose sketchy form down the stretch proved to be an omen for the postseason.
This week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) features two teams that are well positioned to make a sprint to the regular-season finish line. The Columbus Crew has been hot all year, but Sigi Schmid's side has been scorching of late, losing only one game since the All-Star break, and they'll be eager to tighten their grip on home-field advantage for the playoffs.
Also among the league's in-form teams are the New York Red Bulls, who have seen some astute midseason acquisitions result in a 4-1-1 league record since August 1. But with the Red Bulls sitting in fourth place, and with several other teams right on their collective tail, Juan Carlos Osorio's side has little margin for error.
Five story lines to follow
1. Sigi Schmid's road to redemption
After missing the playoffs the past two years in Columbus, Schmid was among those coaches on a short leash to begin the season. But his decision to keep much of his roster intact has paid off, and now the question isn't whether the Crew will make the postseason, but what their seed will be. For Schmid, the development has made him the front-runner for Coach of the Year.
"I'm sure there were some people who doubted or lost faith," said Schmid. "But the important thing is that the players never lost faith. And it's nice having the record that we have, but our job is not done."
New York at Columbus
7 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
2. The Red Bulls' revival
Halfway through the season, New York seemed poised to cement its position as the place where good coaches go to lose their mojo. Some of Osorio's preseason plans were rendered useless when Claudio Reyna retired (to much cheering from disgruntled fans) and Jozy Altidore headed for greener European pastures. But Osorio mined his contacts and retooled his roster with South American imports Juan Pietravallo, Gabriel Cichero and Jorge Rojas. And the results have seen the Red Bulls climb back into the playoff race.
"I always knew that we needed to strengthen the team," said Osorio. "It was just a question of when we would be able to do it ... The good part is that I was quite clear on the positions we needed to strengthen, and we were spot on in the selections that we did."
3. The Crew's ailing MVP
Guillermo Barros Schelotto has been the engine behind Columbus' league-best record, with his six goals and 18 assists making him the favorite for MVP. But the Argentine has been coping with a tender hamstring that forced him to sit out this past weekend's 1-1 tie with Toronto. Schmid indicated that if Thursday's match was a playoff game, Schelotto would play. But with nine days between the New York game and their next league encounter against New England, it's conceivable that Schmid might opt to play it safe and sit his offensive lynchpin for one more match.
4. These Red Bulls are allergic to grass
New York doesn't have the worst road record in the league. However, the Red Bulls have the third-worst road record in the league, having earned only eight points from their 12 away games. But with the Red Bulls attack beginning to click, Osorio is optimistic ahead of Thursday's match.
"We've been doing a lot of practice work in the last third of the field, and trying to be more precise with our last effort on goal," said Osorio. "We need to more efficient with our chances because away from home, we've created enough chances to have won a couple of those [road] games."
5. Can the Crew keep their edge?
With a playoff spot all but assured, the challenge for Columbus will be to stay motivated down the stretch, something that plagued Supporters' Shield winners D.C. United the past two years. But Schmid believes that the Crew's recent playoff drought should do plenty to keep the energy level high.
"It's been a while since we've had success here, so all of these guys are hungry," said Schmid. "From a standpoint of motivation, that hasn't been a challenge with this team. They come into every training session and game motivated."
Five players to watch
1. Juan Pablo Angel, F, New York
The Columbian hasn't been as prolific as last year, but his nine goals in 17 matches still make for a respectable strike rate, especially considering that he's been hampered by a lower back injury for much of the season. Yet with Angel now back to full health, the difference in the Red Bulls' attack has been evident.
"From the All-Star game on, it was almost like having another player," said Osorio of Angel. "He has contributed greatly, not only with the goals he has scored but in the [style] we are playing lately."
2. Pat Noonan, F, Columbus
If Schelotto is unable to go Thursday, it will be up to recent pickup Noonan to take up the slack, which is exactly what he did against Toronto, scoring the Crew's only goal with a sumptuous long-range strike. And as his time practicing with the team increases, Noonan's effectiveness should also go up, regardless of whether he's a starter or substitute.
"I think each week Noonan has gotten better, he's gotten stronger," said Schmid. "He fits in very well with the group, and he's already got a goal and an assist, so I think the numbers are starting to show that as well."
3. Gabriel Cichero, D, New York
The Venezuelan has endured some up-and-down moments since arriving in New York. While he looks to have provided an upgrade in the skill department, he's also proven to be undisciplined at times, as evidenced by the red card he received on Aug. 17 against Toronto for a retaliatory elbow on Danny Dichio. But Osorio has been otherwise pleased with Cichero's play.
"Cichero is that calm player we need in the back," said Osorio. "He's very good playing from deep positions, a very good reader of the game, and a great passer as well."
4. Chad Marshall, D, Columbus
The Crew figure to pick up plenty of end-of-season awards come November, and Marshall is among the prime candidates for both the Defender of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year. Schmid admits that the two butted heads during his early days in Columbus, but has no complaints about Marshall's play this season.
"Marshall's decisions are good, he's so much more engaged in our game offensively as well as defensively, and he talks much more," said Schmid. "We've put different partners with him in the middle of the back, and it hasn't affected his game either way."
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5. Mike Magee, M, New York
The oft-injured Magee has contributed plenty to New York's winning run, scoring three goals in his past five games. And the irony is that, given the roster turnover the Red Bulls have undergone, Magee is a player who was right under Osorio's nose all year. Yet the former U.S. U-20 international has made the most of his chance, and not even a recent staph infection could keep him out of the lineup for long.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.